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Jenkins turns into leader for Bulls

Alisia Jenkins leads all USF players with 126 rebounds.  ORACLE FILE PHOTO/ADAM MATHIEU

Alisia Jenkins was in her junior year at Statesboro High School in Statesboro, Georgia when she encountered one of the worst days of her life. 

Following several complaints about drugs being sold in the surrounding neighborhood, the Statesboro Police Department launched a drug sweep at Jenkins’ school. 

Dozens of students were arrested for possession and sale of illegal narcotics. Two of the students were Jenkins’ older brother and sister. 

Jenkins painfully watched as her siblings were taken away from her, realizing at that moment they would need her to succeed in life. 

“My motivation really comes from my family back home,” Jenkins said. “I know that what I have to do is going to help me and my family. I’m a big family person; my brothers and sisters are my everything.”

Jenkins continued to push herself in basketball and she began to see the results. 

Letters came in from schools across the country, with offers from UGA, Georgia Southern, Marshall, Temple and USF. 

She visited only one school before making her decision. 

“I liked the campus; I liked the people; I liked the coaching staff,” Jenkins said. “I didn’t go anywhere else, I just came straight here. It was my first instinct.” 

The 6-foot-1 forward was intrigued by the challenge of having success on an older team, one where she would have to work hard to make an impact on the court. 

“People were telling me if I went to another school, I could be a starter right off the bat,” Jenkins said. “I’ve been doing that my whole life. I wanted to make it a challenge. When I came here, there were a lot of seniors ahead of me.”

But the challenge was much more difficult than Jenkins anticipated. The forward had no problem adjusting to play on the court with the Bulls as she started 23 games in her first season, but the coaching staff wanted more from her.

“I had a very bad attitude, I was unresponsive,” Jenkins said. “Akila (McDonald) would yell at me and I just wouldn’t show any emotion. That was more shocking to them than an athlete talking back to them. It got to the point that (coach Fernandez) didn’t know what to do.”

Jenkins’ attitude change didn’t happen overnight. She said she was hesitant to accept the criticism of the coaching staff and felt isolated. 

She spoke with her mother over the phone to talk through issues she was going through, but the change in mindset didn’t click for Jenkins until her grandfather passed away at the end of her freshman season. 

“The summer going into my sophomore year, I went through a lot of stuff in May,” Jenkins said. “My grandpa passed and he was like my best friend. It really hit me hard. I used to talk to my grandpa all the time about everything. But I knew if I had sat down with my grandpa before he passed and talked about what I needed to change, he would tell me it’s my attitude.” 

Following her freshman season, Jenkins became a different teammate. She said maintaining high confidence and transferring that to her teammates has been the key in becoming a leader with a positive attitude. 

When then-seniors McDonald and Inga Orekhova were finishing up their final season at USF, Jenkins was paying attention. 

The junior forward observed how Orekhova would lead with her physicality on the court and McDonald would encourage teammates vocally. Jenkins said she has tried to combine both players’ style in her leadership this season. 

“I think she leads by how she plays,” coach Jose Fernandez said. “She’s more of an energy type of player. The kids respect how hard she battles, especially in the interior.”

Since her freshman season, Jenkins has evolved from a valuable player for the Bulls to one of the cornerstones of the team. She’s now averaging 12.1 points and 11.8 rebounds per game, both almost double her freshman year averages. 

“I definitely consider her one of the leaders on the court because when it’s time to go, she’s going to let you know,” junior guard Courtney Williams said.

While Jenkins’ success on the court can be attributed to her hard work and high-energy style of play, she said the secret for her is simple — have fun when you play. 

This didn’t set in for Jenkins until Fernandez sat her down after practice one day this winter to remind her why she played the game.

That night, Jenkins sat up thinking about what Fernandez had said for hours.

The next game, USF played Penn State and Jenkins was tasked with guarding players much bigger than she while playing out of position to make up for injuries. 

“I was really intimidated truthfully because the girls were so much taller than me and I was playing the five,” Jenkins said. “So, I just thought girls that are that tall are supposed to block your shot, so I’m not going to let it get me down when they do.”

USF ended up beating the Nittany Lions 90-87, with Jenkins scoring 23 points, 21 rebounds and six blocks. Williams said Jenkins’ play was the Bulls’ saving grace that day. 

“In the Penn State game, she was the only reason we even stayed in that game,” Williams said. “I was like 1-for-10 in the first half and she kept us in it.”

In the time since, USF has won all four of its games and continues to build an impressive postseason resume behind the play of Jenkins. 

Jenkins said she is grateful for what she’s learned as a person at her time at USF, but she’s most thankful for what her journey there saved her from. 

“Looking back to where I’ve come from and seeing where I’m at now, I just think of how far I’ve come,” Jenkins said. “I’m really thankful because if I didn’t have this, I know I would be in trouble behind bars.”